German’s iguana. Nags a geranium. Seaman arguing.

Don’t worry, the pressure hasn’t got to me.  These – as you may have spotted, in which case well done you – are all anagrams of the same bunch of letters, and the bunch of letters in question are the ones that make up the name of the anagram-generating software that I want to tell you about, the wonderful Anagram Genius.  (Actually, if you add the letters of “wonderful”, you get all sorts of completely different anagrams – “awful and green ignoramus” or “swagger of mundane urinal”, to name but two.)

The really interesting thing about Anagram Genius is how often it comes up with forms of words which seem somehow spookily relevant to the subject at hand.  By way of example, if you offer it the words “Financial Conduct Authority” it comes back with options including.”uncanny if dictatorial touch” and “out-of-hand lunatic intricacy”, both of which fit its financial promotions rules extraordinarily well.  (“Financial promotions rules” gives us “minor professional lunatic”, but I’d better stop there before I get carried away.)

Anagram Genius used to be free, and there is still a free trial version which will give you a taste of it, but after that it’s about twenty quid.  I have no axe to grind or commercial interest of any sort when I say that I don’t think you can get much more entertainment from a Bobby Moore.

Actually, a good analogy just came to mind for this TSB business

My mother’s garden suffers from something called Honey Fungus.  This is a vicious and deadly fungus which lurks indestructibly under the ground – and bursts out, quite unpredictably, every now and then, to destroy some innocent and innocuous plant, shrub or tree.  There’s nothing to be done.  No matter how carefully my mother has tended the plant, shrub or tree, the honey fungus can kill it in a matter of days.

In this analogy, obviously, the plant, shrub or tree is a carefully-nurtured brand;  my mother is the marketing team responsible for the careful nurturing;  and the honey fungus is an IT meltdown like the one TSB is currently suffering.

Like all analogies, it breaks down if you push it too far.  I think honey fungus is always fatal, but TSB will live to fight another day.  But it wouldn’t work half as well if the fungus wasn’t deadly.

“Challenger bank” TSB may be a bit less challenging for a while

It would be unkind to make too much of this, but Sod’s Law is currently afflicting TSB with a vengeance.  It was only about three months ago that the bank pugnaciously announced a year of intense challenge to the lazy and complacent “Big Five” High Street Banks – a challenge kicked off with a punchy new animated TV commercial depicting the Big Five as sleeping fat cats and TSB as a lively little squirrel running rings around them.  “Break free and go somewhere better,” the voice-over exhorted us.

Three months on, the fear now is that it’ll be TSB customers infuriated by their inability to access their accounts after a disastrous IT upgrade who’ll be doing the breaking free.  And “somewhere better” could mean almost anywhere.

As I say, churlish to make too much of this, and important to remember it could happen to anyone (and indeed has happened to several of those fat-cat competitors in the past).  But I think it is worth briefly pondering the implications of this kind of melt-down for marketers generally, and especially for those responsible for brand management.

Ad industry trade paper Campaign reported on January 22nd that “Five years after its re-establishment by competition authorities, TSB is planning to underline its challenger brand status with a year-long marketing drive encouraging consumers to end [their current] banking relationships.”  I suspect this “year-long marketing drive” may now have returned to its garage.

You’d think that when we’re failing, we’d want to learn from success

It seems, though, that you’d be wrong.  At a conference yesterday, several of the sessions focused on the state of play in digital investments.  It was clear that the game has moved on.  That initial surge of enthusiasm which greeted the arrival of god-knows-how-many new more-or-less-mass-market online services has now morphed into growing anxiety about the difficulty (and cost) of acquiring worthwhile numbers of more-or-less-mass-market customers.

My regular reader will know that this comes as no surprise at all to me.  Almost all new businesses go through a customer acquisition crisis, and I’ve always thought that online investing businesses are likely to suffer more than most:  in addition to all the usual problems, they have one great big additional one, namely a widespread lack of consumer appetite for the whole idea.

But what did come as a surprise at yesterday’s event was the amount of fairly desperate and highly tentative casting-about for any kind of solution to the crisis.  What on earth is to be done, people asked.  No idea, others answered.

I couldn’t help thinking that this kind of exchange reflected a really extraordinary level of obtuseness among those involved.  Over exactly the same period that this wave of new services has been launching and failing, elsewhere we’ve seen by far and away the most spectacular success of all time in the field of online investing, but we’re bizarrely reluctant to learn the clear and obvious lessons from it.

This is of course the area of auto-enrolled workplace pensions, where something like nine million new customer accounts have been opened over the last few years and opt-out rates have remained well below 10%.  This is a figure which compares stupendously well with the 0.1% or so of consumers who’ve opted in to other new investment propositions over the same period.

There is pretty clearly one big reason why no-one has tried to learn anything much from the triumph of auto enrolment, and the clue is of course in the name:  since the auto enrolment mechanism isn’t available to investment providers outside the field of workplace pensions, it’s assumed that they’re playing a whole different (and much harder) ballgame and there’s no point in comparing the two.

It’s certainly true that the auto-enrolment principle makes a huge difference, and results without it will be on a different level.  But quite frankly, even if they were 99% worse, they’d still be better than they are at the moment. And anyway, a few moments’ thought makes it clear that the success of auto enrolled pensions also depends at least in part on other characteristics which are perfectly transferable.  Three of these stand out:

  1. Most important, the principle of a default investment option which means that people absolutely don’t need to engage with the whole business of investing or investment decision-making to get a satisfactory outcome.  (As I’ve said many times, this is a completely and fundamentally different approach from your typical online process with its daunting attitude-to-risk questionnaire and range of risk-rated funds.)
  2. The adoption, at least for those involved from the start, of what behavioural economics guru Richard Thaler calls the “pay more tomorrow” principle, beginning with a painlessly-minimal level of contributions and escalating gradually over several years.
  3. The “lock-away” mechanism,” obviously generic to pension pots which aren’t accessible until age 55 but in fact popular with consumers who don’t want to be tempted to access any of their long-term savings (and also obviously appropriate for investments which are described as being intended for the medium to long term.)

In addition, it’s worth saying that in fact some organisations – particularly banks – could if they chose get reasonably close to the principle of auto-enrolment anyway.  One of the few genuinely innovative propositions on the market, Moneybox, shows the way with its “rounding up” mechanism, rounding all your credit card expenditures up to the nearest pound and investing the amount greater than the cost of each item.  Moneybox doesn’t have the money to make this idea famous, and I doubt if one in a hundred consumers has heard of it:  also, the odd 20-something pence overpayment on a coffee or a sandwich probably seems too small to be worth bothering with.  But if you could round up, say, all payments above £30 from your current account to the nearest £10, you’d really get somewhere.

Tucked away in that last paragraph, you’ll have noted a point about the need to spend money to make new services famous.  This, again, is a challenge, and a cost, that auto-enrolled pensions providers haven’t faced, and is another reason why I’m not saying that the auto-enrolment success story can simply be transferred wholesale into the digital non-pension sector.

But a great deal of it can, and I’m sure it has the potential to help providers achieve very much better results than they’re achieving at the moment.   I simply don’t understand why they’re so reluctant to look at it, or to learn from it.

The adperson’s take on “Don’t think of an elephant”

You know that old idea that as soon as someone says “Don’t think of an elephant,” there’s one thing you just can’t stop thinking of.  (Clue:  large, grey, big floppy ears if African, trunk.)

I discovered the adperson’s equivalent many years ago, and to share it with you I have to admit that back in those days I worked (a bit, and among many other things) on advertising for cigarettes. The adperson’s equivalent of “Don’t think of an elephant” was something called the CAP code – I think it stood for Code of Advertising Practice, so it doubled up on the word “code” a bit like the longhand version of the Dutch financial firm ING Group is in fact International Nederlanden Group Group.

The CAP code laid down all the things you weren’t allowed to do in cigarette advertising.  For example, you couldn’t claim that smoking a particular brand made you more successful, or cooler, or more attractive to the opposite sex, or indeed to your own sex.  No adperson in their right mind would want to do anything so ludicrously implausible and crass.  If anyone did, consumers would have mocked the brand to oblivion.  We all knew this.  And yet somehow…

Somehow, the very existence of the code and its many prohibitions meant that we all spent 99% of our time and energy trying to find ways to get round it.  We were obsessed with finding ways to hint, or to imply, on just to enable consumers to conclude, that such-and-such a brand did indeed make smokers more successful or cooler or more attractive or all the rest of it.  It was ridiculous, and our clients’ compliance people nearly always made sure our stupid ideas could never appear.  But, “Don’t think of an elephant” – we couldn’t help ourselves.

The equivalent in financial services is a little bit more complicated – you might say a bit more conceptual.  We’re not allowed to say anything definite about the future performance of investments (except guaranteed investments, obvs, which are a whole different ballgame).

Of course it’s fine that we’re not allowed to, because in our rational minds we don’t want to.  We fully understand that nothing definite can be said.  The whole thing about investments is that their outcomes are uncertain.  And yet somehow, the existence of the rules ensures that we spend 99% of our time and energy trying to find ways to get round them.   We’re obsessed with finding ways to hint, or to imply, on just to enable consumers to conclude, that such-and-such an investment is sure to deliver them an excellent return.  If we could, we’d put a number on it. It’s ridiculous, and our clients’ compliance people nearly always make sure our stupid ideas could never appear.  But, “Don’t think of an elephant” – we just can’t help ourselves.

Don’t worry, I haven’t taken all the good bits out

The book (No Small Change, co-written with my old friend Anthony Thomson) continues to inch its way towards publication (on May 31st), but this last week has seen unusually eventful inching.

It would be churlish to comment in any way other than positively on the role of our delightful publishing team at Wiley, so I’ll politely suggest that the reason no-one there had actually read it until a week or two ago was their complete confidence in its excellence.

However, when someone there did eventually read it, I hope they found it excellent but I know they found it a bit troubling from a legal point of view, with particular regard to a) quite a large number of possible libels, and b) a rather smaller number of possible breaches of copyright.  At the 57th minute of the 11th hour Roger the lawyer was given the manuscript to read, and at the 58th minute he came back with eleven pages of closely-typed areas of concern.

At the 59th minute I sat down to work through them all, and owing to the lack of available minutes there wasn’t much opportunity for negotiation, just an opportunity for JFDI.  A couple of good bits did have to go.  But I’m here to reassure you that there are still quite a few good bits left.  And if you buy a copy, I can share some of the deletions on a one-to-one basis.

 

Honestly, who wrote this rubbish? Ah, I think perhaps I did.

I’m about half-way through correcting the proofs of my forthcoming financial services marketing book No Small Change, co-written with my old friend Anthony Thomson.  For an inveterate copy-tweaker like me it’s a challenging exercise, because we’re under strict instructions not to change anything unless it’s obviously and embarrassingly wrong – a typo, for example, or an incorrect fact, claim or number.

I haven’t actually read large chunks of the book since I finished writing it late last summer, and I have to say I have almost no memory of much of it.  For example, I’ve just read a paragraph slagging off moneysupermarket.com’s website, which I don’t recall ever visiting, and I’m amazed by the apparent strength of my feelings on the subject.

Coming back to all this material with a largely fresh perspective, I find myself frequently unsure whether to leave it as it is or make changes to it.  I don’t really think I have anything much against moneysupermarket,com’s website, and anyway I’m sure they’ve changed it all since the iteration I was writing about.  I know a couple of people there, and I have no desire to fall out with them.  And the criticism I’m making – about a lack of integration with the brand’s TV advertising – applies to dozens of financial services firms:  why should moneysupermarket.com be singled out for such a kicking?

On the other hand, my brief is clear:  don’t make changes unless what’s written is obviously and embarrassingly wrong.  It’s neither, and also it’s actually quite funny.  Unfair maybe, but I think I’ll leave it as it is.